American language has gone through many dramatic changes in the last twenty years. These controversial changes revolve around how language in a male dominated society offends many American women. I was born during a time of constant criticism and debate. One issue that has always confused me is that of gender-specific language. In the seventies, many women were consumed with the feminist movement. A lot of good things have come out of this movement. Today women have as much right for a job as a man; however, a lot of confusion came out as well. Feminists pushed for people to forget there are differences between women and men. I disagree with them; to me, men and women are very different and this does affect the language that the sexes use. Should we all change to a language that does not offend? I do not mind the label “girl” even though I am a thirty-four year-old woman. Our gender-specific communication seems to be a major issue in American society. The surrounding communication issues include the use of pronouns and descriptive nouns.
I have personally watched the changes in written language over the years. Although I often disagree with many politically correct issues, I have seen the changes creep into the way I write and speak. Mot people that I know never minded the language used in our patriarchal dominated society; for that matter, I never minded either. I feel culture plays a significant part in how people think of the use of gender-specific nouns. Many people feel the use of gender-specific words mold our roles in society. I do not agree with that, nor do I agree with Sherryl Kleinman when she refers to the word “girl” as “an infantilizing term for women” (McGrath, p.371). For me the use of the word girl is an endearing, youthful term. Many of my family members call all young women, including myself, girl. This has not molded the role that I play in society. My father taught me that I cannot always depend on a man to be there for me and to help me with everything. Dad taught me to take care of myself and called me “girl” as he did so. Because of Dad’s encouragement, I am not only a mother and wife, but also a shade tree mechanic, plumber, and carpenter. I do see Kleinman’s point; after all, we would not dare call a grown man “boy.” My husband and I are from two totally different cultures (they are both American cultures) that see the use of language in very different ways. This has given me a window in which I can glimpse at the two cultures and recognize the differences in each culture’s use of language. I do not get offended because in my culture, “girl” is an acceptable way to speak of women. My mother-in-law would be quick to correct you if you called her “girl;” and my husband is very insulted if someone calls him “boy.” The reasoning behind their feelings is that in their culture the words “girl” and “boy” are derogatory terms for women and men. I am aware of this fact and know that my husband does not like to be called boy or sir; therefore, I do not acknowledge him in such terms. On the other hand, my husband knows that I am uncomfortable when I am referred to as woman or ma’am; therefore, he never refers to me in those terms.
Other terms of great controversy and confusion are gender-specific pronouns. When it comes to the use of terms such as he, him, his, she, her, and hers; I am tempted to say who cares. Let people write and speak as they please. I never before believed that I would be swayed by the political correctness of language; but I have noticed politically correct changes in my use of pronouns and nouns. I stick to the use of one, them, they, their, you, and your when referring to people. The use of they is often criticized and “must not be used to refer to single persons” (McWhorter, p.380). McWhorter argues because many people use “they,” then “they” has evolved from a plural pronoun to a singular pronoun. I am guilty of using they in singular form. Using they gives me the freedom to write in a way that people do not get offended.
Other ways I tend to keep from offending others is the use of words such as police officer, firefighter, flight attendant, server, etc. Perhaps my understanding of the reasoning behind political correctness has made me sensitive to the issues at hand. When this change began to come about, I worked at a restaurant. We had close to fifty people on the wait staff. About half of these people were women and half of them were men. We were referred to as servers instead of waiters and waitresses. This was the first time that I had heard wait staff referred to as servers. I liked the term because it did not give the negative mental image that you got from the term waitress, however waiters had always been thought of as more sophisticated than waitresses. This experience in my life accounts for the switch of the use of gender-specific nouns and pronouns in my communication.
Though I feel this has been a positive change to language, I do feel that some people tend to take the political correctness too far. Because the lack of political correctness in classic literature makes them feel uncomfortable, people have begun to rewrite such literature. What is next? Will they begin to rewrite history? As most of us know, history is not politically correct. We also know the bill of rights gives every American the right to speak and write freely. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” (U.S. Constitution, Amendment I). It may be politically correct to use they or say firefighter, but it is also an individual’s right to print words that may have a patriarchal or matriarchal dominated tone. Whether you call me girl or ma’am, or whether you write in a politically correct or incorrect way; remember, there is always a chance you may offend someone. So, how do we distinguish when to use and when not to use gender-specific terms? The best advice I can give is if you choose not to offend anyone be sure that you use politically correct words and phrases. If you care not whom you offend, write however you like. No matter how you decide to approach this issue, you will not offend this girl.